Costs of big wildfire season hurting Utah, other states

By Nicholas K. Geranios

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23 2012 2:06 p.m. MDT

A crew from PG&E works Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, to restore power to a rural subdivision overrun by fire by the Ponderosa Fire outside Manton, Calif.

Jeff Barnard, Associated Press

MANTON, Calif. — Twisted sheets of metal, the hulks of pickup trucks and brick walls were all that was left of homes once sheltered by green pine and cedar trees.

In a rural Northern California subdivision that was the latest to feel the wrath of massive western wildfires, long pine needles bent back on themselves, unburned but dried to a brittle dusty gray by the intense heat of the Ponderosa fire.

Thousands of residents of tiny rural communities just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park who had been forced to flee soon after the fire was ignited by lighting on Saturday were allowed to return home on Wednesday.

While the fire was 57 percent contained, with full containment forecast for early next week, 900 other homes were threatened Thursday as the fire burned a new front on the southern front.

The blaze has grown to 44 square miles in the hills about 25 miles southeast of Redding.

Bob Folsom, who works at a nearby hydroelectric facility, tended the gasoline generator that is keeping his refrigerator running while utility crews worked to replace power lines destroyed by the blaze when it roared through the area last weekend.

"I was ready for this day," he said. "I try to be self-sufficient."

Folsom and his son never left their home as the fire burned within a half mile of them last weekend, close enough that they heard trees exploding and the flames roaring like a freight train. Over the past 10 years, they had thinned hundreds of trees, dug a pond to store water, and installed hydrants to fill fire hoses.

"When it comes through, it's gonna come fast," he said. "You don't have time to cut down trees."

Fires across the West have left some states with thin budgets to scramble to get people, planes, bulldozers and other tools on fire lines to beat back the flames.

And that's with about a third of the annual wildfire season remaining.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, the nation as of Wednesday had seen 42,927 wildfires this year, which burned just over 7 million acres.

While the number of fires is down from the 10-year average of 54,209 as of Aug. 22, the acreage was well above the average of 5.4 million acres, said Don Smurthwaite, a NIFC spokesman.

"The fires are bigger," he said.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., this summer, about 350 homes were burned in the most destructive wildfire in state history. Another fire in northern Colorado just before it scorched 257 homes.

The costs have mounted, not just in the damage to houses and other buildings.

In Utah, for example, officials have spent $50 million as of mid-August to fight more than 1,000 wildfires, far surpassing the $3 million a year the Legislature budgeted for fighting wildfires.

The state's share is estimated at $16 million, said Roger Lewis of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. He said lawmakers will need to figure out how to come up with $13 million.

That's the largest-ever supplemental appropriation request needed for firefighting in the state, agency spokesman Jason Curry said. He said, "It's obviously been a big year."

Washington state fire officials project that they will spend about $19.8 million on emergency fire suppression activities in the current fiscal year that ends next June.

That is expected to far surpass the $11.2 million the agency was allotted for such work, meaning the Department of Natural Resources will have to ask the Legislature for supplemental funds.

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